Truths For Overwhelmed Perfectionists WFH #2

Part 2: Redefine “work”

Image by geralt from Pixabay

Yesterday, I released Part 1 of a series of very honest adjustments that may support perfectionists struggling to WFH.

To briefly recap, in exploring a routine that’s suitable for now, I hope you can find some calm. Trying to keep the same schedule as before could be setting your expectations too high, setting yourself up for failure, frustration and self-criticism. Continue to re-adjust. If you are anything like me, unrealistic expectation may rear its head quite a few times.

I want to acknowledge that I am not a therapist. I am a fellow academic. I was unraveled by perfectionism during my PhD then learned first-hand how to safely return and navigate the research environment. This required professional support, which I would encourage for anyone experiencing severe distress.

Many elements of academia can push our perfectionist buttons. This, combined with WFH, can be extremely challenging. Atleast, it is for me. I’m hoping to share my experience and my knowledge to support some of you.

Part 2: Redefine “work”

Image by libellule780 from Pixabay

As a bit of background, I never used to allow myself the time I needed to get things done. I always felt like I was expected to get more done, and faster. So I’d be racing around the lab, trying to fit experiments in between each other. I never finished on time, even when I had plans. I didn’t allow time for mistakes, delays or troubleshooting. I sandwiched myself in between all of these tasks.

I was frantic.

But I learned to defend my time. I learned to say no. I learned to clarify what’s expected of me.

Now, I strongly disagree that scientists should be expected to always be in the lab, with data analysis and writing saved for after-hours and weekends. I know this is expected and enforced in some research groups. But after experiencing burnout, I largely refuse to work out-of-hours.

I have been through this process of redefining work before.

I pushed back against toxic aspects of academic culture and found that the best schedule for me involves a combination of computer- and lab-based work.

My average pre-COVID-19 schedule involved a couple of hours of writing in the morning, a few hours in the lab (broken up by lunch), an hour on figures for my thesis then future planning and skimming emails at the end of the day. This is because I identified my literature review, my practical output and my thesis to be the three key projects requiring my attention for PhD completion.

When we went into isolation, I knew I’d still be able to work on my lit review and thesis from home… but I struggled once again with the question of what to prioritise. I needed to redefine work, yet again.

Unclear priorities can paralyse perfectionists. For me, if everything is equally important and I do it to the standard I want… I just can’t. I collapse under the weight.

I had my normal tasks but then all of a sudden, my emails (which I normally skim) were blowing up with crucial COVID-related content from various sources. My emotions and anxiety were requiring about 3 times the amount of self-care attention than normal, in order to work. Technical adjustments, security and difficulties suddenly required my attention. I needed to construct a last-minute, makeshift office in my dining room. There were so many unexpected changes for all of us, in quick succession. And all of this requires work, even if you wouldn’t normally define it that way.

It felt like a waste of time to read emails for hours. I felt no sense of achievement. I clung on to my old measures of progress but they were impossible to achieve. Once I recognised this and conceded I now had new priorities, this gave me the space and permission to adjust. It is now in my best interests to keep more on top of correspondence, ramp up solo and social self-care, introduce virtual connection measures to stay sane and somewhat productive etc.

My work day now looks very different but regardless of your role, I think that’s necessary in times like these. Give yourself a break.

Perfectionism led me to burnout, an anxiety disorder and depression during my PhD. I want to share what I have learned to help others avoid the same fate.